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Elizabeth I's offer from the Moroccan Sultan

By Gary Oswald

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth

1578 - The Portuguese Empire was one of the first and most powerful Global Empires. It ruled land in South America, West and East Africa, the Middle East, India, the East Indies and China and for over 150 years Portugal had been attacking and annexing Moroccan port cities and taking the fruits of Moroccan farms as tax or tribute. And now it was coming for the Capital. King Sebastian felt there’d be no real opposition. The current Sultan was ill and dying and his nephew the previous Sultan, who’d been overthrown by his uncle, had thrown his lot in with the Portuguese and fought on their side.

Ahmad al-Mansur

But the army of Morocco was undivided, intact and led by the Sultan’s younger brother, Ahmed. And at Ksar-el-Kebir he would destroy an Empire. It was probably the worst defeat Portugal has ever suffered. Their army was wiped out, their nobility were captured for ransom thus crippling their finances and their King was killed which meant his dynasty was extinguished. Two years Spain invaded to put their own King on the Portuguese throne and Portugal, unable to resist, lost their independence.

1591 – The Songhai Empire was one of the largest and most powerful Empires ever seen in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its dynasty had ruled Gao since the 11th Century and under Sonni Ali it had conquered huge areas of territory to stretch from the Atlantic to Agadez, controlling valuable salt and gold mines. At Tondbi they mustered an army of 18,000 men with herds of cattle to stampede at their enemy.

Their Enemy? The army of Morocco, the Army of Sultan Ahmed. 4,000 had set out across the Sahara to get here and less than 1,000 had survived that journey. But they had guns and they had cannon and they had discipline. When the cattle were stampeded, the Moroccans fired and startled the herd in to changing direction and running at the ranks they had started from. Faced with gunshot and cannon shot and raging cows, the Songhai army broke and their Country broke with it. Within weeks Morocco had occupied their Capital. Ahmed had destroyed his second Empire.

1599 – The Mali Empire was perhaps the most famous entity in Africa to Europeans and Asians. It was the country of endless gold, the country of the famous Musa I, the country that sent great fleets to die in the Atlantic at the whim of their kings, the country that built huge universities in the desert. And now that their Songhai rivals had disintegrated it was here to take back what it once had.

The City of Jenne had being conquered first by the Songhai and then by Morocco and Mali wanted it back. Its army was not as large as the one that had broke at Tondbi, but it was more disciplined. Volley and volley of gunfire was fired into its ranks and it did not break. Soldiers died and were simply replaced by more soldiers but courage is no match for firepower and eventually there were no more soldiers left. The last gamble of the Mali Empire had failed and the country crumbled afterwards.

1602 – They called him Ahmed Al-Mansur Eddahbi, the victorious and the golden. He had during his life destroyed three empires and he was coming for a fourth. In 1602, a messenger arrived in London.

Elizabeth I had long traded with the Moroccans through the Barbary Company and there had long been talks about an Alliance. Ahmed was offering her that and more. His plans were for a joint invasion of Spain and its colonies so that Morocco and England could partition the world’s greatest Empire. Under this plan, Southern Spain would be returned to Muslim rule and the first Muslim colonies in the New World would be established.

The plans came to nothing and within a year both Ahmed and Elizabeth were dead.

But could it have done? How serious were the plans? Was Spain actually in danger?

No. Obviously. Neither England nor Morocco were any match for Spain at this point and the plans were far far too ambitious to be realistic. Ahmed’s three great victories had been against Enemies who fought him on his terms. In all three battles he caught the other side in the open with a superior army, he outnumbered Portugal and outmatched Mali and Songhai in firepower. Launching an offensive campaign against heavily defended fortresses across seas and oceans was entirely out of his capabilities, Morocco didn’t even have a Navy.

So why did Ahmed make the offer? What was actually happening?

Well this was only one of many letters Ahmed Al-Mansur sent to European Monarchs and pretty much all of them promised the world. The Spanish thought that his letters were so enthusiastic that he would obviously be their ally until they realised that his words weren’t backed up by actions. Elizabeth, who’d had long experience with Al-Mansur enthusiastically promising to support her against the Spanish and then just not doing so, would have known this. In fact probably the main reasons the plans were so ambitious was so Elizabeth wouldn’t actually expect him to follow through. Promising stuff that is impossible is a cheap gift.

And Ahmed needed the boast for prestige in loudly announcing to the faithful that he was ready to take back the great Muslim cities of Seville and Cordoba because plague, famine, civil war and rebellion were crippling his kingdom. By announcing that he was still up for destroying Spain, if only England would agree, he could attempt to hide the weakness of the Moroccan state. And, of course, England would not agree, they were knee deep in a costly war in Ireland and had little money to spare for such an adventure.

It was worth considering the English Armada of 1589 which was meant to free Portugal from Spain but failed miserably. Ahmed had agreed to invade Spain at the same time as England to draw off their armies. But he then took the plans to Spain and got them to agree to return to him the port of Asilah, one of many Moroccan port cities still controlled by the Iberian Union, in return for Morocco staying neutral. A little before that Spain believed they had negotiated an agreement to swap one city for another only to find Ahmed betrayed them and was not interested in giving up any cities. Ahmed’s bold words were often empty, he knew the limitations of his state and wasn’t ready to lead them into a bloody war he might not win. His greatest achievement was that his enemies took his boasts seriously even when he had an empty hand to bluff with.

So if it meant so little why am I talking about this? Well because the letter to Elizabeth I is one of the most discussed moments in Moroccan AH, largely by people who know Elizabeth but only have a surface level of knowledge about Al-Mansur and so take it at face value. It's best not to.

A Moroccan controlled Southern Spain and New World is an interesting, and plausible, setting for an AH story but you’d be better off with a 12th or 13th century POD when the Moroccan states were a lot stronger and the Iberians a lot weaker.

Which doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of interesting AH stores you can tell about Al-Mansur’s Morocco. Even them fighting Spain allied with England is plausible but it would be like the Moroccan-Spanish wars of the late 17th century, a series of long bloody sieges of the Spanish cities in North Africa, rather than something like the plan in the letter. A much easier war to get would actually be Morocco allied with Spain against the Ottomans. The Turks claimed to be rightful overlords of Morocco and at least once in Al-Mansur’s reign built up an invasion force ready to enforce that which Spain would have disputed before Ahmed managed to talk them down. Or Sebastian could have succeeded in making Morocco a puppet state under Portugal. And in all these scenarios, Songhai and Mali would get a stay of execution.

Likewise Al-Mansur’s death saw Morocco plunge into anarchy due to a disputed succession, a different death date could either see this worsen and so separatist movements like that of Rabat succeed or this not happen and so the state holds itself together which among other things butterflies the racial wars of the late 17th century when Moulay Ismail enslaved the free black population of Morocco.

And if you desperately want Ahmed to notch up his fourth empire, there is an obvious target. The Borno Empire of modern day Chad and Nigeria. In 1582 the Sultan of Borno sent an embassy to Morocco in which he asked for Moroccan aid in his jihads against pagan neighbours and in return he would recognise Ahmed as his caliph and feudal master. In the next few decades other West African Muslims would be offered the same deal by Morocco, it would be the Songhai’s refusal of this that led to their doom. Ahmed was not looking North as much as he was looking South. He wanted to unite Muslim Africa, indeed he wrote a huge amount of letters to Egyptians and Algerians criticising Ottoman rule in the hope that they’d throw out the Turks and invite him in in their place, and the allegiance of Bornu was a huge feather in his cap. If a Sultan of Bornu attempted to break that, Ahmed would have the motive and opportunity to annex them directly, which would have huge effects on the history of West Africa.

This is obviously not quite as exciting as the reversal of the Reconquista and the execution of Philip III but it’s much more in keeping with Ahmed’s goals and personality. He played soft ball with Europeans and hard ball with Africans. As many later rulers would learn themselves, Sub Saharan African had many resources that could be conquered and extracted for minimum loss of soldiers. Morocco was far more interested in that than a costly war with Spain.



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